“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counter-terrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country” (Obama, 2015).
U.S. President Obama stood to address the nation on 28 January 2015 during his State of the Union Address, and many wondered at the change in his pattern… Did he just say that U.S. forces were going to remain in Afghanistan?! Wasn’t he beating the drum of a quick pull out on a strict timetable for years now? Where did this come from? Why the sudden change?… Many Democrats had mixed emotions written all over their faces during that part of the speech… Military Service Members present at the time sat with malice-filled stares, absent of any notion of respect for the Commander-in-Chief, and Republicans roared to life as a small, fleeting notion of victory came over the prevailing atmosphere… WHAT HAPPENED?! It would seem, the policy of withdrawal had changed, and this change made it onto the agenda.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stepped onto the black top of an airfield in Afghanistan shortly after on February 21st, 2015. Only four days after taking up the appointment to the office, the Obama administration sent him to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to discuss the future stability of the nation as the U.S. moved forward with its plan to pull troops out of the area by the end of 2016. But this mission was not one of rapid withdraw, as so many have criticized Obama for attempting to champion during his fight with both Congress and the Joint Chiefs in the years past. Instead, this was a discussion on the possibilities of slowing that process down. It would seem as if Obama finally got a reality check. After more than a decade committed to in-theater operations trying to secure the stability for the region and destroy the Taliban threat, you can’t simply just pull out. Sure, the masses have been screaming for a decade that they did not want the nations military forces in the Middle East, that such commitments would never accomplish anything, and that only casualties would be the result, but that very Cut-and-Run notion was also the source of much public, private, institutional and political backlash Obama faced when trying to force such a policy to occur in the first place. After so many years, pulling out too fast in an effort to appease the masses would cause the region to implode with more violence, and service members who have deployed all say the majority of Afghan forces simply are not ready to take over… and they may never be ready to take over.
To assess the withdrawal policy, it’s important to first understand what is at stake here. The Obama administration demanded the withdrawal to happen, but after three conditions have been met: free and fair elections leading to a peaceful transfer of power; the quick signing of a bilateral security arrangement that allows U.S. troops to remain in the country (which despite the word “negotiate” being used in the president’s State of the Union, was nowhere near a “negotiation”); and the building, arming, and training to full operational readiness, an Afghan army capable of taking full responsibility for securing their own nation as the United States presence shrinks. To this day, not one of these things has occurred. To date, all Afghan elections have been met with violence and political accusations of fraud, Taliban attacks across the nation have increased, and no security arrangement has been signed. To say that leaders and civilians throughout the region are worried would be an understatement, to say that even U.S. lawmakers are not concerned would be wrong as well.
At the time the announcement to withdraw forces from Afghanistan came out from the administration, Democrats touted Obama as a hero President who ended the nations longest war in history, removing the U.S. presence in Iraq – which U.S. special operations forces have never left, and more U.S. forces are now returning to engage ISIS – and began saying that by the time he leaves office in 2017, he will have ended the war in Afghanistan as well. However, Democrats seem to be the only ones on Obama’s side. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham both criticized the administration directly after the initial pull out policy was announced. “The president’s decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy”, McCain publicly stated back in May 2014. We all know that Republicans don’t think so highly of him or his administration, but a majority of American’s, and the overwhelming majority of military Service Members don’t either. In a recent January CNN/ORC poll of the U.S. population, an overwhelming 57% disapproved of the administrations handling of foreign policy, and about half disapprove of the way the administration is handling the threat of terrorism on a global scale. It would seem that lawmakers are divided by party ties on one side, and a concept of the reality of the situation on the other. Democrats simply side with the party because it’s beneficial to their political gain… but Republicans are looking at the big picture. If the nation leaves too soon, violence will undeniably return, and at record-setting levels.
As of 2015, the United States still has roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and Defense Agency reports proved that 2014 was the deadliest year combined forces have ever had in the nation since the start of the war in 2001. Worse still, intelligence sources have warned that more attacks are soon to come, leading both Afghan and U.S. officials to believe that 2015 will be far worse as insurgency continues to rise to higher levels. Additionally, with the march of ISIS across Syria and Iraq in the passing months, many terror cells in Afghanistan have since relabeled themselves as members of the Islamic State. All together there are over 21 documented terror networks operating inside Afghanistan – the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Islamic Jihad Union, and the Islamic State, just to name a few – but official estimates put the actual numbers much higher. These issues are not new. As early as 2005, intelligence sources suggested that the retreat of the Taliban across the border into Pakistan meant that there might possibly be a resurgence in the future. These assessments were proven correct when U.S. political undermining of the in-theater ROE by Obama made it all but impossible for U.S. troops to both defend themselves from attacks and be effective in destroying the enemy. This made it possible for the Taliban to use the new 2012 ROE rules to their advantage as they moved back into Afghanistan with force for a third time since the war began. Now, even after the Obama administration declared an official end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan do we still find U.S. forces engaging the enemy in direct combat. The U.S. Special Operations mission as a part of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) is still conducting Counter Insurgency (COIN) and Direct Action (DA) raids along side the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). These actions are in direct contradiction to the administrations official publicly stated policy declarations.
While policy actors within a divided Senate, interest groups, and non-policy public pressures have increased awareness of the complexity of a withdrawal, outside pressures to slow the timetable of withdraw have even come from Pakistan, who has warned that removal of forces from Afghanistan too quickly would result in serious destabilization across the region. Pakistan has a uniquely vexing relationship with the matter due to the fact that it is a listed enemy to several western nations, but relational ties do seem to have improved over the years. After the election of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, Pakistan launched several large-scale military operations to remove the nations plaguing terrorism activities in their northern region. Yet, experts have said that Pakistan should still be kept at arms reach, and for good reason. The nation has a well-documented history of opening itself as a safe heaven for Islamic terrorists, and even in the past, evidence proved that it aided terrorist activities on several occasions. Yet there is no doubt that the nation suffers due to terrorism, and the U.S.–Pakistan relationship can best be described by the combination of two old adage’s – the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and keep your friends close, and you enemies closer.
Back to the concerns of Afghanistan itself, this month, Ghani will visit Washington to discuss a new, slower withdrawal policy now that the issue has made it on the systemic agenda. However, the future of this new policy shift is dependent on factors that govern the security of the situation, which is the primary argument of Republicans. Prior to taking up the office as the nation’s Defense Secretary, Carter told the Senate that he would reconsider plans to pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. However, he also said it would greatly depend on the safety and security of the situation as well. Carter plans to work with all U.S. coalition partnered forces to assess the changes, but also to make sure that terror networks and groups – like the Islamic State – do not expand their presence into Afghanistan in the process. Overall, the feasibility of a policy finalization will ultimately be determined by the outcome of efforts to control the spread of Islamic terror cells throughout the region as the U.S. slowly steps back. This reality check was made clear as recent attacks on remaining U.S. forces continue, and at least now the administration seems to understand the gravity of the cost of pursuing an aggressive political agenda that selfishly neglects foreign policy, military operations, and regional stability. In the end, only time will tell if tell if this shift will make if out of the woodwork, and into the books.
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